This is topic No Matter the Cost (700 word fantasy story) in forum Fragments and Feedback for Short Works at Hatrack River Writers Workshop.

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Posted by ncthornock (Member # 10309) on :
John wandered around the monastery grounds, observing the neatly raked beds of gravel and stone-lined paths. Larger stones were artistically placed here and there. One large square stone stood at an intersection, its hewn shape attracting attention. At the top were inscribed the words, “No Matter the Cost.” Written below were the names of about thirty monks. The date was nearly fifty years ago.
John studied the stone, wondering at the story behind the words. He spotted a monk pulling weeds from one of the gravel beds, and walked over. “Excuse me, sir,” he said. “Do you know why that stone is there?” He pointed back at the monument.
The monk pushed back his floppy hat. “It’s to remind us of those whose lives were lost when the demons first came.”
Posted by Jay Greenstein (Member # 10615) on :
You're explaining, as if this is a report. But presented this way each line stands alone, an isolated fact. It's what you, an outside observer notice about the place, not what he's living. And fair is fair. It is his story, after all. So smooth, combine, eliminate fat, and place it into his viewpoint. For example, an opening line like:

John wandered the monastery's gravel paths, admiring the artfully placed stones.

The reader can't see the place, so mentioning that the paths are raked gravel, and how nice the border is is irrelevant detail, and doesn't tell us how big the place is, or anything significant to the plot or the action. What matters is where he is, how our avatar perceives the situation, and his seeing that specific stone. Everything else serves only to slow the narrative.

If the raked stones and border matter to the plot, and the reader needs to know it, giving him reason to notice and respond keeps you off the stage.

Small things make up viewpoint. When you say, "One large square stone stood at an intersection, its hewn shape attracting attention." It can only come from you, which is authorial intrusion. But suppose you phrased it as:

A large square stone, at the intersection of two paths, brought him to a stop.

It's square. Other then slowing the read, what purpose does "in the shape of a square," serve? Why must you mention that it's been "hewn" to that shape? Does it matter to the plot if they shaped it or used a naturally occurring square? No. What matters is that it stopped him and made him react to it. And that can be accomplished in a lot fewer words. That matters for two reasons. First is that fewer words to say the same thing = faster read and more impact. And second, the reader is expecting to be entertained. Anything perceived as an info-dump, especially when the reader is deciding to buy or pass, will all too often kill the audition.
Posted by Grumpy old guy (Member # 9922) on :
700 words are not a lot to work with if you want to tell a story, why waste any of them? In your submission fragment of 152 words, the first two-thirds of them simply describe a walk in the garden and a monument to an unknown number of monks. I say unknown because you used the words, “about thirty”. How many was it, exactly: 10, 20, 33, 26? Details and the particularity of such a central icon matter to readers.

700 words implies this is flash-fiction. In my mind such stories represent a single moment in time; the crucial moment of an event, if you will. And yet, to understand that moment, the writer must set it in some sort of context, they must set the scene. The writer must give even flash-fiction a beginning like any other story, no matter how brief and truncated. The monument with the inscription and the names carved upon it meets that criteria; you just took the tortuous, long winded route to get there. My challenge to you is to get me to those names on that moment in 20 words or less, not the 64 you used.

Jay brings up the matter of viewpoint and creating a close narrative distance between character and reader by writing the whole episode through the direct perceptions of 'John'. This is a valid observation and has some things to recommend it. On the other hand, having an unbiased narrator 'report' on only what is said and done and felt has its place too; particularly if you, the writer, want to withhold certain information from the reader that 'John' would know. The narrator is not hiding information from the reader, he simply doesn't know what it is, he is just reporting on what is happening, as it happens.

For instance: The setting as written leads the reader to assume that the monks won a battle against some demons. What if the demons won? That's playing on reader's natural assumptions, and using a 'reporting' narrator to 'hide' that fact is not quite the same thing as using cheap tricks to deceive them.

Hope this helps you on your way.

Posted by extrinsic (Member # 8019) on :
An individual asks another individual about a monument's backstory.

A frame story, which puts mechanical and aesthetic boundaries around a core story or binds a set of stories, is a challenge for seven hundred words. The fragment's frames are John on the exterior, the monk in the middle distance, and the core tale of the monks of the past who battled demons and died. The three-step transition from a now, present sense impression and persona moment to a past moment and personas is a method once popular for folk tale, fable, and raconteur "campfire" storytelling, deployed to authenticate fiction narratives and develop narrator identity. All strong instincts and potentially artful.

However, even the best of frame stories best practice entail outer frames' dramatic relevance to inner stories. Filtered through multiple lenses otherwise causes reader disengagement at inner boundaries. John is the first filter lens, then the monk, then through the filter of time's lens to the past.

One method to create a unity between frames and cores is through congruent yet different present and past sense impression of events, settings, and characters. Like as an adult might have a different impression of an event that transpired when a child, or a person, or setting, or all three, or even two.

For this fragment, that would mean John came to the lamasery (or dojo, abbey, friary, temple, monastery, what?) with a present sense impression of the monk-demon battle -- why he is here -- rather than by happenstance stumbled onto the monument as an accidental tourist. Furthermore, his present needs be impacted by the past battle in a personal way.

A challenge to manage in seven hundred words in any case. The fragment and its whole story, therefore, to me, appear to be a sketched outline of the core story and the fragment an attempt to set up and prestage the setting and era of the demons' emergence filtered through a present lens.

That the monument arouses John's curiosity puts him into a reader surrogate role, potentially artful, though my curiosity is unaroused by the fragment. A reader surrogate is the camera, so to speak, through which readers experience a dramatic action as bystander, a different role than a persona invested in an action, like an agonist who contests for an outcome. Also a different role than a narrator, who expresses commentary about a central topic, sometimes the narrator's own attitude, sometimes the received reflections of an agonist's attitude toward a topic. As the fragment is, it has very little, if any, attitude toward a topic. This is tone: an emotional-moral attitude toward a topic.

That John is curious about the monument establishes a motivation, a want complication, as it were, though of low, if any, magnitude, and want's congruent opposite problem motivations fall short of magnitude as well. Likewise, no personal stakes are raised to develop a personal-private conflict, somewhat a public conflict in the monk-demon battle of the past. If the demon problem is a present concern, that holds want-problem motivation and private and public conflict stakes force potentials. (Motivation-complication, stakes-conflict, and tone-attitude are three, if not the three, essential drama criteria, for starts, middles, and ends.)

The title "No Matter the Cost" so soon repeated in the text defuses a dramatic irony appeal for readers who delight in deciphering a title's import and origin. Another title is indicated anyway, something thematic and dramatic that implies a specific human condition the story is really and truly about. An example just for chuckles and illustration: //The Occidental Tourist at Bei Bei Temple//.

A standout, for me, of the fragment is the setting descriptions of frame bounded gravel gardens implies this place is an Eastern martial arts temple. Huh, warrior-mystics. Such tangible items are potential "correlative objectives," which T.S. Eliot asserts is the only way to express emotion in written word, and other intangibles that imply the personal meaning of sensory experiences and of a narrative's true meaning whole. However, the toneless representation of the setting description blunts any eye-kick appeal value that the gravel gardens may have -- well, less somewhat works, more somewhat doesn't work for me.

I would not at this time read on as a reader, certain, more or less, the story is in its sketchy infancy and ripe mostly for further development before I could immerse in the all-important reading dream.

[ January 16, 2017, 06:20 PM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]
Posted by Delgreco (Member # 10607) on :
Hi, Thanks for posting. Here are my thoughts on your fragment.

John wandered around the monastery grounds, observing the neatly raked beds of gravel and stone-lined paths.
For me this opening sentence created a lot of questions: How long has John been there wandering? Why? Did he meander in on a whim? Or has he come to the monastery for a purpose? I didn't find answers to these questions in the remainder of the fragment.

larger stones artistically placed here and there.
Artistically placed seems to imply a plan or arrangement with purpose. But the words "here and there" seem to say haphazardly or without real plan or purpose, like they are strewn about. These two feel at odds. Perhaps only to me.

There are gravel paths that are stone-lined, larger stones scattered about, and one large hewn square stone at an intersection.
The stones scattered about are described as larger. Larger than the stones lining the paths is the implication. Depending on how large those stones are meant to be, the ones scattered about could be hand-sized, head-sized, or enormous boulders one cannot see over. Same thing with the hewn stone that is described. How large? How large in relation to the other rocks described? The descriptions could perhaps be more specific to give a closer to intended mental picture to the reader.

wondering at the story behind the words. -and- "do you know why that stone is there?"
John has no idea. The effect, to me, is that these monks claim demonic entities arrived and were dealt with by the thirty monks listed on the stone, likely without public knowledge. If this was an "invasion" event that changed the world wouldn't John know about it already? I suppose it could also be possible that demonic entities, and their invasions, are a normal occurrence in this setting and John is a visitor who does not know the history of this particular location and when/why demons arrived here fifty years ago.

At only 700 words, the opening lines leave me feeling like the story isn't likely to be more than a fantasy history lesson given by the monk introduced. The opening, to me, reads like a writing exercise to nail down backstory. I am left unsure what our main character wants or what the conflict of the story might be.

Hope you find something useful in here,
Posted by Bent Tree (Member # 7777) on :
To begin, I feel like the moment of incitement is off. That is to say That I don't feel the story starts in the right spot. The narrative seems very distant which is ok. I appreciate what it is telling me. For me it seems that the narration is bringing the world together to you the writer. As a preliminary or exploratory draft this is wonderful. Reference to "Demons" was to me the Speculative element although in this text that is uncertain. Sometimes the combination of religion and demons is hand in hand and not necessarily part of the story. So in this way I feel like I am entering a genre that might include titles :"Devil's Advocate, Omen, or Constantine"

I cant find much to say about the writing. I believe it could work if you work on the moment of incitement, I think this could really shine
Posted by ncthornock (Member # 10309) on :
The shrieking of the nearby canyon winds made an odd counterpoint to the peace in the monastery grounds. John paused in his wandering to read the inscription on a large stone monument: “In memory of those who died when the demons came.” The names of eleven monks were carved below it.
John spotted a monk pulling weeds in one of the neatly raked gravel beds, and walked over. “Excuse me, sir,” he said. “Can you tell me about the monks who were killed by the demons?” He pointed back at the monument.
The man glanced up. “Only two of them were killed by demons.”
John frowned. “What happened to rest of them?”
The monk didn’t answer.
Posted by Wildstar (Member # 7742) on :
Hi ncthornock,

We haven't meet so I just wanted to say, if anything I mention below rings true, go with it. If not, forget about it. I am no expert and these are just my thoughts as a reader.

Demons killing Monks, yet the Monastery still stands and at least one monk survived which suggests an epic battle between Good and Evil, I'm in.

I did have to read this twice to make sure I was clear with what was happening. For me there is a little bit of shoe leather that muddies up your opening. In your first sentence it would help me if you used "within" instead of "in", it just helps the flow and suggests in my mind the walled in gardens of the monastery.

In your second sentence it would help me if you removed "in", I think John would pause his wandering, not pause within it. It also helps the flow as you have three "in"s in the first two sentences.

"“In memory of those who died when the demons came.” The names of eleven monks were carved below it."

I thought it might be interesting to write out the names of the eleven monks because their names would give us a lot of information as to where we are in the world. By not naming them they became insignificant to me and therefor insignificant to the story. If this were a visual medium we would see the names be significant whether we hear more about them latter or not.

This next section is where there is some shoe leather for me. If John could just get right to his question and ask the monk pulling weeds in the neatly raked gravel beds, "Can you tell me..."

This next section was confusing to read and why I had to read twice.

"He pointed back at the monument.
The man glanced up. “Only two of them were killed by demons.”
John frowned. “What happened to rest of them?”
The monk didn’t answer. "

Is the "He" John or the monk? I think you mean John but John just asked the question and in my mind after the question I went right to the monk for the answer and he pointed back at the monument, then glanced up and said... If John is doing the pointing can you added that to the action of him asking the questions? That way, once the question is asked we can go right to the monk for the answer. Then John can follow up with his next question.

For me the question is the best place to even start. "Can you tell me about the monks who were killed by the demons?" That gets me right from the start, that is a question I want to know the answer too.

I hope some of my thoughts are helpful. I enjoyed reading this and would continue to read on.


P.S. Obviously I need to go read somewhere how to do the quotes, sorry about that.
Posted by extrinsic (Member # 8019) on :
The next version doesn't to me substantively change content. Different words, not much to speak of dramatic goes on. The fragment still seems to be a frame story setup for the nested story of what happened in the past between the monks and demons.

Henry James' The Turn of the Screw is a model for a frame story narrative, though its start is of a low and slow dramatic magnitude. Alternatively, One Thousand and One Nights, or Arabian Nights, does open dramatically, soon anyway. Nested tale teller Scheherazade is personally vested in the frame action by a high magnitude dramatic complication and implicated in the frame's outcome, gotten too after some imposed religious mandate trifles. That frame story meets the criteria I believe this fragment asks for; that is, John vested at a high drama magnitude in the nested story at the start, of what happened between the monks and demons in the past.

Best practice is to start with such an opening, high drama magnitude. How? What? And so on, who, when, where, what, why, how is John complicated by the past events? If not by a dramatic want, by idle curiosity as is, then a problem he wants to satisfy. For instance, he could be plagued by a demon who survived from the past, or be a vessel of one newly emerged in the present, and want to cope somehow with it. Possibilities abound. One dramatic want-problem at the outset is an essential.

I would not and cannot read on as an engaged reader at this time.

[ March 02, 2017, 11:57 AM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]
Posted by ncthornock (Member # 10309) on :
Thanks, everyone, for the helpful comments. I think the second version is much better than the first. Even if it's not quite to everyone's taste. [Smile]

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